Interview with singer/songwriter J.J. Thames - her music has the beautiful feeling from those days gone

"Blues is a feeling, happy or sad, that is put into the form of music. Whether it is humming a Negro spiritual, scatting down a swing or be-bop tune, or skanking an island song of peace, love or revolution."

J.J. Thames: Soul Emotions

Raised in a General Motors fueled, blue-collar family, the classically and jazz trained J.J. Thames began performing at the tender age of 9 years old, and became a blues- shouting banshee by the time she was just 18 years old. She cut her teeth after moving down to Jackson, MS. Where she began to perform with the celebrated "Chitlin' Circuit superstars like; Marvin Sease. Miss Thames has proven to be a true survivor as she scrambled her way to the top of the roots music heap, creating a soon to be world renowned reputation that is just taking off into the atmosphere.

A colorful mixture of traditional blues and soul, Thames began her career in the late 90’s onstage with musicians and friends, Bobby Blue Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Willie Clayton and Denise LaSalle to name just a few. She diversified her influence when she began to sing backgrounds for reggae-rock band, Outlaw Nation, and becoming immersed in another form of roots music: Reggae and Ska. JJ began touring with many reggae and rock legends including: Fishbone, The (English) Beat, Israel Vibrations, and cult favorites- Slightly Stoopid and 311. Her fans are a mixture of true genre bending, traditional blues fans, southern soul blues lovers, ska rockers. Rockabilly and swing dancers, grey haired hippies, and everyday folk of all ages, flock to see J.J. and hear her musical messages of love, pain, hope, freedom, and empowerment.

“Tell You What I Know” is the name of J.J.'s original song and the title of her debut album for DeChamp Records. It is also the “testimony” of the 30 year old blues singer and songwriter’s hard knock journey to here. Thames is one sexy chanteuse. She has performed all over the world with artists as a backing vocalist, and has even penned songs for some main stream pop, R&B, rock and hip-hop artists, but her path to success was not always glamorous or easy. J.J. is what was beautiful about music from those days gone by but her transparency, excellence, authenticity; determination and optimism are what keep her shows passionate, honest and irresistible. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe JJ Thames sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I am classically and jazz trained. That training has served as a strong foundation for my sound. It taught me how to breathe, control my tone, vibrato, and to use my body and facial placement to deliver certain sounds. (My motto is ugly faces make beautiful sounds, by the way.) Over the years, I listened to, studied and mimicked many soul, jazz, and blues singers including Rachelle Ferrell, Phyllis Hyman, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Esther Phillips, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. As time progressed, I took nuances from each of those women and found my own raw voice. Now, I can say that I feel my voice is uniquely my own. My formula for creating and performing my music is non-compromising and complete honesty. Searching myself for my truest emotions, and conveying them through song. I feel that people want to be moved, and touched by music. They want music that can be the soundtrack that streams under their daily lives. I strive to provide that soundtrack, by singing my innermost thoughts and feelings- amazingly most times those that are listening feel the same way that I do. I feel that music has the ability to cross every culture and language barrier- to unite us.

"Soul and music speak to people about their lives, sometimes saying things that most people wish they could say, but don’t. It echoes the innermost thoughts, feelings, wishes, and emotions of the individual." 

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

Mostly, love or lack thereof and going through and overcoming struggle. I write songs about my personal experiences. One listen to my record, and you will have a really good idea of who I am and what I’ve been through. My new record “Tell You What I Know” is about my struggle, and ups and downs on the journey to here. It details the personal relationships that I have experienced on that journey, like falling in love, and out of it. The stage in a failed relationship when I’ve moved on, but the ex-factor still had a hold on my heart. The place of feeling low about myself and questioning my worth. Or, In my strong times, wanting to be strong for someone else, and at another point, being strong enough to walk away from an unhealthy relationship, and never return. I write about flirting with a man who’s dawdling a little too much, and urging him to come and talk to me. I write about being empowered, and I write about being crushed. It’s the day to day ebb and flow of life that inspires me to write. Kind of like a reality TV show for your listening pleasure.

Why did you think that the Soul and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The definition of ones “soul” is a person’s mind, will, and emotions. Soul music, and Blues music connects with the listener on that very level…at the soul. I am a strong advocate of the idea that people want to be moved, and they want to be touched on a deeper level. We all want to feel understood. And a good song, no matter what we are going through, can speak to us about our circumstances and can change grey skies blue, or on the other hand, help us to find solace wallowing in our misery, by allowing us to feel a little less alone. However, Soul and Blues are not just sad and put-out, po’ lil me songs. They also are historically and in modern day times, about celebration and having good times as well. Soul and music speak to people about their lives, sometimes saying things that most people wish they could say, but don’t. It echoes the innermost thoughts, feelings, wishes, and emotions of the individual. As long as you have humans capable of the full spectrum of human emotions…Soul and Blues music will always have someone listening.

"My formula for creating and performing my music is non-compromising and complete honesty. Searching myself for my truest emotions, and conveying them through song. I feel that people want to be moved, and touched by music."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

The first was at the age of 18, meeting a band by the name of Mo’ Money Band- who has now been together for over 35 years. They were the first ones to hire me, and I worked with them every week for 6 years. They taught me how to “perform.” Not just sing while standing in front of the microphone. But to really give myself to the music, and not be self-conscious about anything.

Because of them, I met another one of my mentors, an amazing blues and soul singer by the name of Patrice Moncelle, she too encouraged me to step outside of the box; to attack songs and not to just let them happen to me. She also taught me how to talk to the audience, how to put together a songlist, and deliver a well-timed joke. (Which is a VERY beneficial skill to have as a singer.)-who knew?

Around the same time, I met Andy Hardwick. Andy is an AMAZING key player, although his first instrument is the saxophone. He played for Ike and Tina Turner and a plethora of other soul and blues artists in the 50s and 60s. I performed with Andy in a lounge setting at a hotel for 4 years. He honed my improvisation skills by constantly keeping me on my toes with key changes and unexpected modulations. He also would play songs in whatever key he wanted to, so it also extended my range, and refined my ear. Andy actually is the person who introduced me to the blues by requiring me to learn traditional blues in order to perform with him. If I didn’t learn the songs that he outlined for me to learn, well, I just didn’t perform. (THAT only happened once.)

Christian Simeon of Outlaw Nation is also another person who changed my world. He found me on Myspace in 2006, and invited me to come and sit in with his band in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I ended up touring and singing backgrounds with them for almost 6 years. Simeon taught me the business of music, i.e. touring, routing tours, promotions, balancing books on the road and off, band management, personal financial management (I can hear him saying, “Get a Roth”), merchandise, etc. He also was the person who taught me how to write a chorus. He told me without a memorable hook or chorus, you’re song isn’t a song, its garbage. Harsh, but true.

The most recent person that has changed my life is the Bluesman Grady Champion. He saw me sing at a blues jam at Hal and Mals in Jackson, Mississippi. A few weeks later he signed me to his new label, DeChamp Records. Grady has given me a musical family and home, as well as a solid platform and resources to display my talent while building a sustainable career. At DeChamp, I have the freedom to write and truly be an artist. I love my label, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

What is the best advice ever given you?

The best advice I have ever received was at 15 years old, and it was to LEARN AND KNOW the music business. It was impressed upon me that the music world is 90 percent business and 10 percent talent. I couldn’t have reached the level that I am on now without having a working knowledge of the business. It’s not enough to just be able to deliver the song. To truly be successful in this business, you have to understand all of the behind the scenes work and elbow grease that goes into getting your music and yourself in front of people. If no one hears you, no one can support you-no matter how amazing of an artist you are.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

The day that I recorded the title track from my record, “Tell You What I know” was probably one of the hardest days of my life. I had just received an eviction notice as I was walking out of the door of my house to go to the studio. When I walked into the recording session, my producer, Sam Brady, was sympathetically speechless when I told him what happened, and let me cry for a minute and get myself together. I went in the booth, and poured my soul out on that record. With tears in my eyes, I was singing from a real place. In hind-sight, I’m glad that situation happened that day. I had to dig deep and really empty myself. I feel like I was able to sing my truth at that very moment, and that it reflects on the record. I think that people can feel my conviction…”I can’t walk away…one day…a change gone come.” At that moment, despair threatened to swallow my soul, but my own words encouraged me. I truly believe that if you can’t encourage yourself, It’s very difficult if not impossible to encourage anyone else.

Recently, I just came off a 4 month tour as the lead singer for the BB King All-star Band. While I was on that tour, I sang a cover of Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Pardon’s hit song “I Will Always Love You”. While singing, the band noticed a woman visibly upset-she was crying profusely. When I finished the song, I stepped off of stage and hugged her tight, she kept saying “Thank you…thank you.” The band took a break, and I sat and talked to the lady. She unfolded details of what had just recently happened. Her son had just passed away, and she said that I sang the song with such passion and conviction, it made her feel like I truly understood, and she felt less alone. I shared with her that 8 years ago, I too lost my young son to cancer, and whenever I sing that song, I am thinking about him, and remembering how I had to let him go-so he wouldn’t have to endure anymore suffering and pain. It makes me feel better too. We hugged again and she left the show smiling. I feel that, music has the ability to heal, and touch people in ways that mere words never can. I’ll never forget that woman, she reminded me that I always have to transparently leave it all on the threshing floor whenever I sing. You never know what people are going through, and how you can touch their hearts, kissing it and making it at least a little better with a song.

"The best advice I have ever received was at 15 years old, and it was to LEARN AND KNOW the music business. It was impressed upon me that the music world is 90 percent business and 10 percent talent."

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

One of the best Jams I have ever played in was at the Village Underground in New York City every Monday night hosted by Cheryl Pepsi Riley. It was always amazing because the musicians were all professional as well as the singers. The singers would all sing backgrounds for each other…it was a community of music. We were all fans of each other, and you never knew who would show up. The music was innovative and there were many times that not one dry eye was in the room.

My most memorable gig was actually last night. I performed on a new TV show called “Blues Underground” in Jackson, Mississippi- hosted by Bluesman Grady Champion. It was the first time I had the opportunity to perform songs from my new record. My band is an amazing group of guys, and played their hearts out. The response of the crowd to my originals melted my heart. They got it! They understood the stories I told. They locked in on the emotions…they felt my energy, I was humbled, and it has ignited a fire to hit the road with a vengeance-sangin my song!

From the musical point of view what are the differences between southern and northern music scenes?

Northern soul tends to lean towards the heavy beat and fast tempo of Detroit’s Motown, and Chicago’s Chess Records sound; while Southern Soul tends to lead towards more loose Rhythm and Blues and Gospel overtones that can be found in Mississippi’s Malaco Records and Memphis’ Stax Records sounds.

I personally like to hang out in the middle of both. Born in Detroit and exposed to the rich musical heritage, and then being musically raised in Mississippi- I got the best of both worlds

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

I miss the lyrics. I listen to old Etta James and Big Mama Thornton or Ray Charles. The lyrics were like poetry. The instrumentation was amazing and “arranged”. There were string and horn arrangements that could make you cry. The emotion was very evident in the music. The lyrics were painfully or joyfully honest…The music was masterful as a whole. It was well thought out and executed. It made you “feel”. I only hope to be able to accomplish the same with my own recordings.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Tell you what I know…I can genuinely say that personally, I don’t have any fears…In my heart, I know that this is my time, and I am soaking it all in. My team and I are making every effort to make the best decisions to create longevity in my career, and I happy with where I am, and with where I know that I am going. My hopes are that we continue to reach farther and wider than we could have ever imagined. It’s already happening right before our eyes. I just desire to make good music that withstands the test of time, and for it to be a major part of the soundtrack streaming under the lives of people listening.

I’m an optimist, I believe that whatever we dream and conceive, we can believe and receive. We have to be willing to stand, fight and endure through whatever we must, and in the end we will see our visions come into full fruition. I’m not saying it’s always an easy cake walk, but it isn’t impossible. Nothings impossible if we put our minds to it and refuse to give up. My hope is to relay this thought to the people who listen to my music. In turn, I hope it incites them to follow their own dreams, big and small, with fervor.

Which memory from Bobby Blue Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Willie Clayton and Denise LaSalle makes you smile?

All of the artists that I have had the honor of working or opening for have been instrumental in my current and, I am positive, future success. Each one of them, I can say, ran tight ships; I learned discipline, and to always maintain an urgent demand for excellence-every time. With every artist, the memories that make me smile are being so young (between the ages of 18 and 22), being the wide-eyed “newbie” on the scene- Riding in vans to small towns, mostly in the south, that I had no clue ever existed. Writing in my journey every night all of the things that I was learning. I remember, silently listening to conversations and drinking all of the knowledge and experience in. Sometimes they would let me open for them with a couple of songs. Those were always exciting, butterfly filled moments, and they were always very encouraging and usually eager to let me know that my future was bright. It means a lot when someone who has “made it” reaches back to encourage those just beginning their journeys. Those kinds of things stay locked up in the treasure chest of a young artist’s mind.

"I miss the lyrics. I listen to old Etta James and Big Mama Thornton or Ray Charles. The lyrics were like poetry."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul Jazz and continue to Gospel and Reggae music?

Although some argue about which came first, blues or jazz. I believe that blues is the foundation on which Gospel, Soul, Jazz, and Reggae all stand. (Rock and roll as well, of course). Blues is a feeling, happy or sad, that is put into the form of music. Whether it is humming a Negro spiritual, scatting down a swing or be-bop tune, or skanking an island song of peace, love or revolution. The foundation is still blues.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Watching the reaction of the fans while performing has both made me laugh and at times brought tears to my eyes. When people feel the music in their deep down soul, some dance frantically (I recently have had people say that they hadn’t danced in 20 years until they came to one of our shows- and then proceeded to dance all night long). That makes me laugh with a big open mouth hearty deep belly laugh, punctuated with a snort, because they don’t want to sit down, and you end up performing dance tunes for 30 or 45 minutes straight. I love to see people have a good time; it brings me joy to see other people be filled with it. You can see the elation on their faces- It makes for a great night!

What has brought tears to my eyes is: I always make an effort to ask the audience at some point of the show, how many years couples have been married. Most times, there are couples that have been together for 50 plus years. The band will then buy the longest married couple glasses of champagne and we perform a love song for them to slow dance to. To see them hold each other so closely, and to feel the long burning love for each other permeating the air, you can’t help but to feel something in your own heart. I feel honored to do what I do, and see what I see. It incites hope in future generations (myself included) to be blessed enough to find true and lasting love, when we have examples of it right before our eyes.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would spend a day with my grandmother. She owned a juke joint and boarding house in Emporia Virginia during the 40s and 50s. All of the great artist during that day would stop through her place, perform, and usually spend a night or two. They reveled in fish dinners, live music, and homemade hootch while people danced the night away. I would have loved to be there to experience a real “Wang Dang Doodle” party. I would have loved to stand and perform on that stage.

J.J. Thames - official website

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